Belief and Non-Belief

This article has been making the rounds on Facebook for me today, and something about it really puzzled me. I couldn’t put my finger on it until later, when I realized that I and the author — and possibly the people who conducted all these studies — disagree on what “religion” actually means.

The first hint of this arrives in the sentence “a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.” The metaphysics, or broadly speaking in this article, religion, that’s referred to is stuff like “the soul”, a “non-present listener”, and “spiritual element”.

But to me religion is a far more concrete thing that’s only tangentially rooted in metaphysics. The things I’d classify as “religious” as opposed to “someone who deeply reflects on the human condition”, as my friend T put it, are:

  1. The presence of an omniscient, omnipresent, being
    1. Either deeply involved in Earthly affairs or
    2. The clockmaker, who put the universe into motion and then took a break
  2. Ritualistic behavior
  3. Authoritative texts on behaviors that are appropriate, including but not limited to:
    1. Clothing to be worn
    2. Food to be eaten
    3. Superstitions

Or some combination of the above.

“Belief in a soul” simply sounds like someone thinking that who we are is an emergent property, a thing bigger than the sum of its parts. Someone who couldn’t have been Frankenstein’d into existence. The non-present listener isn’t properly defined in this context, but we all are capable of imagination and empathy, so I’m skeptical that this can be classified as a “religious” activity.

Similarly, the section in the article exploring narrative causality as an inherent “symptom” of religious expectation is baffling. I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I consider the “right” and the “good” to be two, often non-overlapping spheres of behavior. Simply put, I think morality isn’t the same as religiosity. So the idea that our craving for non-bleak conclusions where those who do things that are obviously wrong get punished, is somehow religiously motivated, just doesn’t hold water for me. The things that are obviously wrong, that all religions protest against — like murder, cheating, lying, stealing — arouse indignation on any level.

I think this article fails to distinguish, crucially, between two kinds of people: the amiable atheist who cannot conceive of a Abrahamic/Hindu/etc God(esse(s)) but who is still capable of looking up into the night sky with wonder; and the devout believer who thinks God(esse(s)) shape her destiny.

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